Lifestyles of poor, powerless

HARRY PEARL
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2013
The Laurents
BRUCE MERCER/Fairfax NZ
WINTER BLUES: The Laurents, from left, Michael, 13, Debbe, Lucan, 3, Mark, Melanie, 6, and, front, Ayla, 6, warm themselves with hot water bottles and blankets. The family struggles to pay high winter power bills.

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Some Waikato residents have been left without electricity and unable to heat their homes after defaulting on power bills that have jumped as much as $83 over the past year.

Statistics provided by the Labour Party using latest Electricity Authority figures show household power charges for the Counties/Thames Valley/Waikato/King Country region have increased up to 4 per cent in the year to May 2013.

Nationally, domestic prices have increased 3 per cent on average - hitting consumers with a $67 rise.

Margaret Starreveld, co-ordinator at Thames Budget Service, said a number of her clients were "in the red" and struggling to stay on top of bills.

"At least half a dozen, if not more, have no power on now because they can't afford to pay it."

Ms Starreveld said electricity bills were a major concern at this time of year.

"You've got to pay your rent and your food and everything else, and this time of year power goes through the roof."

According to the figures, power prices in the region have risen 25 per cent - or $449 - since 2008. Major Lindsay Chisholm, budget service co-ordinator at the Salvation Army Community Ministries in Hamilton, was also concerned by the price hikes.

He said in most cases a 4 per cent increase would outstrip wages.

"The benefit doesn't increase, wages are fairly static, so that means when you get an increase . . . which is roughly $1.50 a week, for a lot of people it doesn't help the situation."

The Salvation Army advised clients to pay a weekly amount by direct debit, rather than one lump sum, which could catch people out, he said.

Ms Starreveld said she would like to see a proper study done into how power prices were set. "We're paying a heck of a lot of money for our power."

Earlier this year, Labour and the Greens proposed to establish a central electricity buyer, NZ Power, which would buy wholesale electricity at a "fair price".

The proposal has been given short shrift by the Government, and BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O'Reilly has labelled it "economic vandalism".

But yesterday, Labour finance spokesperson David Parker said it would address "out of control" electricity rises.

"Labour's NZ power plan will reduce Kiwis' power bill by hundreds of dollars a year and help our businesses cut costs. That way people will be able to keep warm in winter."

ELECTRICITY TOO MUCH FOR FAMILY

 

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A Hamilton family is battling cold conditions and putting their health at risk as they struggle to keep up with escalating power bills.

Dinsdale couple Debbe Laurent, 45, and her husband Mark Laurent, 41, and their children are often left huddling in their lounge and snuggling under blankets with hot water bottles to keep warm in the winter months.

They live in a two-storey home that is difficult to heat, according to Mrs Laurent, who said their monthly bill could be up to $250 but only a small portion of that went on home heating.

"We don't. We just can't afford to," Mrs Laurent said. "It's just plain and simple. It's not a case of, ‘we struggle to heat it', we just don't."

Mrs Laurent refused to use electric blankets on beds and has put the oil heaters away because they are too expensive to run.

"I had one running when my son was born and our power bill was just phenomenal. It was huge."

Hot water bottles are their primary source of heat but they occasionally use a gas heater when the weather is bitterly cold.

"I think we've had it on maybe four times just when it really has gotten too much and then it's a case of closing all the doors," she said.

Mr and Mrs Laurent were worried about the health of their children. They have a 20-year-old daughter, 13-year-old son, 6-year-old twins girls and a 3-year-old boy.

"One of my kids gets bronchitis quite easy, two of them get tonsilitis really easily," said Mrs Laurent. "I've had a bad cough that went through the house and, oh my God, I'm sure my son was going to cough up a lung."

Mrs Laurent had set up an automatic payment of $46 each week for the power bill and is usually in credit at the end of the summer months but with only a single wage they don't have the income to cope with the rising cost of electricity.

"It's up heaps. When we first moved to Hamilton seven years ago, we had the heat pump on - cooling down in summer and heating up in winter - and my power bill was probably $150-odd. It would get up to $180 and I'd complain about that but it's gone up so much."

- Waikato Times

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